COACHELLA, Calif. — Getting clean water from the tap is something many of us take for granted but for Nancy Bustillos, a farmworker who lives in eastern Coachella Valley, it’s a new luxury thanks to a water filter recently installed by a local nonprofit.
For the past 15 years, Bustillos has lived at the Gonzalez Mobile Home Park in Thermal with her husband and four kids. They didn’t trust water from the tap and relied on bottled water for all of their daily needs. In Spanish, she told Spectrum News 1 that the water always looked hazy and they would never drink it.
Bustillos was even more worried when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited the park last March for high arsenic in the drinking water, almost three times the federally approved limit. It’s a carcinogen, and over time, drinking arsenic can increase the chances of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and neurological damage. Bustillos says she was worried the contaminated water would harm her and her family, especially because her kids use the water to shower.
In 2021 and 2022, the EPA has cited 10 mobile home parks in the east valley for drinking water with high levels of arsenic that exceed the federal limit. Eight parks have made efforts to treat the water but none have yet to meet the agency’s long-term compliance standards. One of the parks cited includes the troubled 60-acre Oasis Mobile Home Park, which the EPA discovered had almost 10 times the allowable limit of arsenic and resulted in Riverside County announcing plans to close the site.
Sergio Carranza, executive director of the nonprofit Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation, has worked for years to provide impacted residents with access to clean water. He says the “polanco” mobile home parks lack water infrastructure and are some of the poorest communities in the valley, often neglected and home to many farmworkers and low-income residents. They draw from groundwater, which has naturally occurring arsenic.
As a short-term solution, Carranza’s team provides free water filters to families in the parks, including Bustillos’, but he says not everyone believes in the filter’s reverse osmosis technology or sometimes the mobile home park owners don’t allow the installation.
But Carranza says he’s hopeful about a plan approved last year to construct a 5.5-mile pipeline incorporating three mobile home parks into the Coachella Valley Water District, a project that garnered $23.4 million in funding from the State Water Resources Control Board.
“The local water district approved this section that you see here from Avenue 66 along Lincoln Street all the way to Avenue 68 to help Huetamo [Mobile] Home Park and St. Anthony [Mobile Home Park] to help consolidate."
Once the main line is set, Carranza says additional pipes can branch off to reach more mobile home parks. He says the new pipeline won’t be ready until the end of 2025, long overdue for communities that have been neglected and disenfranchised for years, but it’s the residents who inspire him to keep pushing forward with his efforts.
“To see their patience and to see their commitment and hope is the most inspiring situation that keeps us pushing,” he said.
Pueblo Unido CDC water and sanitation technician Martin Bautista installed Bustillos’ water filter, one of roughly 400 he’s put in mobile home park units over the past few years. In Spanish, he explains that the water filters use reverse osmosis technology, and each one provides about 50 gallons per day, enough for family to use throughout the day.
With the new filter in place, Bustillos says she isn’t as worried about her kids getting sick from the water. She says she feels much happier because she doesn’t have to buy water — something she doesn’t take for granted.